ave Creek officials are exploring ways to provide fire protection and emergency medical services for the town, instead of relying on nearby municipalities’ departments.
The town hired independent consultant Kevin Roche of PSRM, who reviewed the recent fires and prepared a report for the council. Its current model of voluntary subscription fire and EMS is not sustainable, Roche said in his report. The limited service provided by Rural Metro Fire to the town’s residents depends on revenue from between 40% and 50% of the municipality’s properties.
It also depends on the provision of mutual aid from neighboring jurisdictions for simultaneous, moderate and larger emergencies.
“The willingness of the town’s neighbors to provide this backup for free is at the breaking point,” Roche wrote.
Daisy Mountain Fire & Medical Chief Brian Tobin told The Foothills Focus that it’s draining his department.
“We’re basically their de facto backup to their going on the cheap in their town,” Tobin said.
“The metro fire departments surrounding Cave Creek are so frustrated by the city’s failure to have a fire department that they are considering not coming back for the next big Cave Creek fire. There’s way too much risk for us to go in on an hourly basis to put fires out in a town like that. We do it with our partners, and we’re all in it together. Tom Shannon (Scottsdale fire chief) will tell you that he has had career-ending injuries to his firefighters—meaning they’ll never be firefighters again as a result of working with the Rural Metro Corp.”
Particularly frustrating for Tobin is when his and other fire departments are tied up fighting wildfires in Cave Creek when their tax-paying residents are in need of help.
“Let’s say we’re going to play golf and I have a car crash,” Tobin said. “I dial 911 and I’m close to this station. Guess what? No one’s coming. So, I’m going to lay by the side of the road, waiting for people to come because they’re all in Cave Creek fighting fires.
“They’re at the point where every time we show up for a fire, we’re talking a six-figure bill.”
Cave Creek Town Manager Carrie A. Dyrek said the invoices received have been approved for payment by mayor and council.
Cave Creek staff is looking at the town’s fiscal year 2020-21 budget and developing interim as well as long-term options for the town that would have to be integrated into longer-term strategic financial plans, she said.
The wildfires in May drew the response of firefighters from all over the Valley and Arizona—including Daisy Mountain, Phoenix, Scottsdale, Peoria and the state of Arizona—at “considerable expense,” Roche wrote.
Cave Creek has extensively studied the issue of fire and EMS provision in the past. In June 2008, after six months of work, the Citizens Advisory Committee on Fire Coverage Options for the town of Cave Creek made a number of recommendations on the future of fire protection there.
Roche said if the town were to choose to fund its own fire and EMS, initial capital costs for facilities, vehicles and infrastructure would likely exceed $4.5 million, with annual expenditures of over $3.5 million.
“This estimate is for two of the possible three fire stations that would be needed to cover the town and includes fire stations, vehicles and staffing,” he said.
“Cost should not be the only consideration in these discussions. While fire insurance can replace many belongings and health insurance can pay ambulance bills, what insurance cannot take the place of is time. In a fire and medical emergency, time is of the essence. A person’s chance of surviving a fire or urgent medical emergency event drops dramatically in minutes. The timely arrival of properly trained responders can, without being overly dramatic, be the difference between life and death.”
Roche determined three options for Cave Creek remain the same, with a subscription model available for property owners through Rural Metro; required subscription through Rural Metro; or town-funded fire and EMS, either by contracting through neighboring municipalities or a fire district funded primarily for property taxes.
“The fire chiefs of Phoenix and Scottsdale have indicated that their departments are not interested in serving Cave Creek as contractual service providers,” Roche said.
The final idea is to allow Daisy Mountain Fire District to process a boundary change that includes the town in the district. It’s the only fire district eligible to change its boundaries due to an Arizona statutory requirement.
Roche said if an option other than the status quo is chosen, the town would be “well advised to consider the fate of the firefighters currently serving Cave Creek in the course of their employee with Rural Metro Fire. They have first-hand knowledge of the community and residents’ needs.” Rural Metro Fire operates Fire Station 825 in Cave Creek at 37402 N. Cave Creek Road with four firefighters operating an engine company, a 2,700-gallon water tender (tanker) and a wildland firefighting apparatus.
It also operates fire stations in Carefree and Rio Verde that provide backup. Rural Metro Fire is not a partner in the automatic aid system.
Roche suggested starting discussions with the Daisy Mountain Fire District board to expand its boundaries, if its staff is willing. Right now, with its five fire stations, Daisy Mountain Fire District covers approximately 210 square miles from Black Canyon City, south to the Phoenix city limits and east to approximately 24th Street on the north side of Carefree Highway. It’s a member of the automatic aid system.
According to Roche, mutual aid is not meant to be used for day-to-day emergencies. Instead, it allows fire departments to cross town and city limits and help in a time of need.
“The key to mutual aid is that each participant in the system needs to contribute to the whole in a balanced and meaningful way, hence the word ‘mutual.’”
Rural Metro Fire has mutual aid agreements with many, but not all, of the cities, towns and fire districts it borders in Maricopa County.
In the Valley, fire departments have participated in a more “functional and agile system of mutual aid called automatic aid,” Roche said.
The system began in the 1970s and includes more than 25 jurisdictions from Maricopa to Sun City West and Scottsdale to Buckeye Valley. The key is that all fire departments agree to operate according to the same procedures and to staff their emergency response units according to set minimums. Fire departments can plan fire station locations in cooperation with one another and rely on one another for day-to-day first-response coverage.
“In automatic aid, the closest firefighters are sent to respond to a fire or medical emergency, without regard to jurisdiction,” Roche wrote. “The system has been found to improve service to the customer in need and to save money for all jurisdictions since resources are shared.”
Communities that border Cave Creek are members of the automatic aid system, including the Daisy Mountain Fire District and cities of Phoenix and Scottsdale.
Scottsdale’s Shannon said the automatic aid system has “no quarrel with the firefighters of Rural Metro.” He met with Rural Metro Chief Brian Davis and he was “very, very forthright. He acknowledged the resources in Carefree and Cave Creek are inadequate. He’s coming at this from a pragmatic perspective.
“We can no longer supplant the services of surrounding communities. We don’t allow it in the automatic aid system. We can’t allow it from communities with whom we have no agreements. Our agreement is with Rural Metro. That is just not a realistic relationship at this point.”